What is a Network Interface Adapter?

R. Kayne

A network interface adapter links an electronic device to a network by providing a two-way communication system for data flow between the device and the network. A network interface adapter can require an Ethernet cable that runs between the adapter and the network’s router or hub, or it can be wireless. Wireless network adapters must be matched to a wireless router, both sharing a common wireless standard to be interoperable. A network interface adapter can be an internal or an external model. An internal model is also known as a network interface card or NIC.

A network interface adapter.
A network interface adapter.

Virtually all computers today are manufactured with a wireless network interface adapter installed internally. Installed NICs for wired networking were standard prior to wireless networking, and for many years computers came with both types of network adapters. The wired NIC is not always present on modern computers marketed to the public, as the call for it has waned considerably with the rise of wireless networking.

A network interface adapter may require an Ethernet cable.
A network interface adapter may require an Ethernet cable.

A wireless network interface adapter uses radio frequency (RF) waves to communicate with the network’s router. Both the adapter and router have a built-in receiver and transmitter for exchanging data. The effective broadcast range of wireless networks varies according to hardware and other factors, but this bubble is known as a hotspot. With a compatible adapter, anyone inside the hotspot can jump on to the network, assuming it is open to the public or that the user has credentials to join the network.

While hotspots work quite well for the home, office, cafes and other public places, this type of wireless network has a drawback. If one moves outside the broadcast range, the signal is lost. Another type of wireless network known as mobile broadband utilizes cell towers to broadcast the network’s data flow, eliminating the need to be anchored to a locally available router. Cellular Internet requires its own type of network interface adapter, which is branded for the cellular carrier providing the service. Nearly all cellular phone companies offer optional mobile broadband Internet at additional cost to cellular phone service.

An external network interface adapter can plug into a standard USB port. Depending on the model, it can provide an Ethernet port for wired access, wireless capability for a local hotspot, or contractual mobile broadband connectivity. Adapters can also come in the PC Card form, sliding into the PC Card slot of a laptop or notebook. Aftermarket internal NICs or adapters can be installed inside desktop and laptop computers.

The many choices available for network interface adapters means customers are never at a loss to find the right adapter for the job, or in this case, for the network. If an aged computer contains a wireless adapter that only supports an older wireless standard (e.g. 802.11g), and the router only supports a newer standard (e.g. 802.11n), an inexpensive external adapter that supports 802.11n can have the computer networked in no time.

In some cases, mobile connectivity might be occasionally required for networking on the go, or for places where hotspots are unavailable. An external mobile or cellular network adapter is the answer, and many carriers offer pay-as-you-go plans to avoid recurrent monthly fees.

If interested in a cellular network adapter, check with the carrier of choice or look for third party adapters guaranteed to work with the desired carrier. Note that when it comes to cellular broadband, an adapter’s price tag might be based largely on the generation of cellular service the adapter supports. Newer generations are usually faster and more desirable. A network interface adapter that supports yesterday’s cellular standards might be cheaper, but also slower.

Shop for network adapters everywhere computers are sold. If buying for a wireless network, be sure the adapter shares a common protocol with the router. USB network adapters that are more streamlined will be less likely to be hit or bumped when used in a mobile computer or device.

Cellular internet, provided over cell towers, requires special network interface adapters.
Cellular internet, provided over cell towers, requires special network interface adapters.

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